The theme for this year’s Oscars was “Heroes in Hollywood.” Although the show referenced the subject with clips of predominantly male heroes, best actress winner Cate Blanchett pointedly noted in her acceptance speech that audiences also want to see women-centered stories, remarking, “The world is round, people.”
It seems that everyone but those at the top of the Hollywood hierarchy has gotten the memo that the big-budget film world remains desperately behind the curve on gender diversity. In 2013, female characters comprised only 15% of all protagonists and just 30% of all speaking characters in the top-grossing 100 films, according to a study released last week by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film (see Variety.com for more on the study). Women of color were even less visible.
Behind the scenes, women accounted for 6% of directors and 10% of writers working on the top-grossing 250 films in 2013. These percentages are actually lower than those recorded in 1998. For all of the talk about gender diversity on various blogs and industry panels, little has changed in more than a decade. How can this be?
The fact is, there has been a profound lack of leadership and action on the issue by film studio heads and union executives. Typically, when journalists question studio execs about the dearth of women directors, they politely sidestep the question, listing the four or five such women they have ever worked with as proof that no such underemployment problem exists. So when Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal commented in a Forbes magazine article last year that “the whole system is geared for (women) to fail,” it seemed like the acknowledgement that many who had cited gender inequality — from both within and outside the industry — had been waiting for. By making that statement, Pascal publicly recognized the systemic failure of the studios and unions to institute practices that would enable women directors, writers and those in other behind-the-scenes roles to work more.
The community’s reluctance to right the skewed gender imbalance is curious given the fact that movies with female leads and women working behind the scenes are a win-win for all involved. As Blanchett pointed out, women are not a niche audience. They purchase 50% of all movie tickets and comprise 52% of moviegoers, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America. Films featuring females in leading roles interest boys and girls, men and women. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” had the biggest November debut of all time, and grossed $864 million worldwide. To date, Disney’s animated feature “Frozen,” headlined by a female protagonist and co-directed by a woman (Jennifer Lee) has seen its box office fortunes surpass $1 billion. “Gravity,” starring Sandra Bullock, has earned $703.3 million globally. We need leaders working at the major studios and unions who are willing to establish clear guidelines and practices that will result in greater numbers of women working behind the scenes and on screen.
Every indicator suggests there are plenty of talented, well-trained and ambitious women ready to work. When one considers film genres and venues that are more welcoming of women, gender balance — and the talent of women — becomes clearer: Women account for 39% of directors working on documentaries screening at high-profile film festivals around the country, according to the Center’s latest Independent Women study. Compare that with the aforementioned 6% directing top-grossing films produced and marketed primarily by the larger studios.
The lack of women on screen and behind the scenes is a big problem requiring big leadership and big solutions. We need some heroes.
Martha M. Lauzen is executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State U. Jennifer Siebel Newsom is the CEO and founder of the Representation Project, director of the documentary film “Miss Representation” and is married to California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.